Yesterday, I visited the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, U. S. A. My focus on this occasion was to view the modern art collections. I went through slowly, taking in each picture or sculpture, and discussing it with my daughter, who accompanied me on the outing. Eventually, we came to a painting by Norman Lewis entitled Green Mist. Lewis was an American artist who lived from 1909 until 1979. He was a lifelong resident of Harlem in New York City, and often depicted jazz musicians in his work. This painting, from 1949, caught my attention on this day because it had a musical theme. The text displayed next to it contained this description: “Set against a glowing backdrop, the frenetic, calligraphic lines in Green Mist evoke the tones and rhythms of jazz.” I was immediately interested in the ways in which a painting might evoke the tones and rhythms of music.
While the posted text is not the last word in interpreting or understanding this work, it is a good starting point. First, are the tones and rhythms of jazz frenetic, and in what ways is the picture frenetic? I found in the Merriam-Webster dictionary that frenetic means “filled with excitement, activity, or confusion.” In the painting, the black outlines superimposed over the color images does bring in some confusion; that of two realities being viewed simultaneously. The blurred images in the background create a third reality that brings with it a mysterious, undefined, quasi-impressionistic quality that provokes curiosity and perhaps excitement founded on not quite knowing what is in front and behind the color images in the middle. The effect is busy in the sense that there is a lot going on, but still contained in a single picture. It reflects the same kind of full, eventful, constantly changing and in motion affect one gets from people watching in a busy city.
Second, are the tones and rhythms of jazz calligraphic? Calligraphy is the art of beautiful handwriting, characterized by elegant lines and artistically renders letters; therefore, something that is calligraphic displays an elegance and beauty of line, shape and formation. There is a beauty to the lines that are drawn and that form the letter or in this case the outlines of images in a picture. The lines reflect the calligraphers art. We can easily connect the calligraphic properties to musical lines. A skilled jazz musician shapes the musical line into a shape that spins in space and stimulates our minds to enter that sound-space and move within its curvy lines and freely structured limits. The very greatness of the best jazz musicians is found in their ability to do just that–to shape musical phrases that are both creatively original and harmonically obedient even to the point of breaking away from harmonic structure.
If you look at the painting, one of the first things you notice are the wiggles. There aren’t any straight lines, they are curvy. If those images weren’t stuck in a painting, they might even be wiggling. There is motion there.The strokes that produced those outlines in the foreground are also motion suspended in time. They leave the impression of movement. Those outlines are soloists, front and center, playing off the coloration of colors in harmony, and playing for a subtly noisy audience in the blurry background. You will also notice that there are no jagged edges or straight lines, or sharp corners. The lines flow as the calligrapher’s pen, reflecting the surrounding images yet never conforming to them.
Do you hear these things in this 1949 recording of Charlie Parker’s historic performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City?
As I listened to this music, I found myself moving back and forth, mimicking the motion of the images in the picture without realizing it. It is fun to imagine Lewis with the sounds of jazz in his ears moving his brushes across the canvass directed by the groove, beat, colors, rhythms and tones of this great jazz musician and his band. The lines that Parker draws with his instrument are indeed elegant and ever in motion. These are perhaps less frenetic than his later work, but still energized with an undercurrent of impatience and energy wanting and waiting to be launched. The edgy colors and tones with which he repeatedly infuses his music go back to the outlines over color images in Lewis’ painting.
I also observe that the texture of the picture is dense. Those color images are clustered as if they were sculpted from a lump of clay, connected from within yet beckoning to be set free of their attachment as they move to the groove. Isn’t that how jazz is put together? There is at once a looseness and freedom in the improvisations over changes, while at the same time an order that is in the laws of acoustics and the physics of color.
I would love to know your impressions of Lewis’ depiction of jazz in this painting, and hope to hear from many of you with your comments.